Welcome to the midpoint of the year! With Emmys season underway — and so much new TV happening ALL THE TIME — EW TV critics Darren Franich and Kristen Baldwin are pressing pause on their streaming devices long enough to celebrate eight shows that broke through the 2022 clutter.
<em>We Own This City</em> (HBO)
Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (Jon Bernthal) plants guns, steals cash from dealers, sells those dealers' drugs for profit, turns law-abiding citizens into collateral damage, and uses the Baltimore PD's overtime fund as an ATM machine. His sins, and the crimes of his squadmates on the Drug Trace Task Force, are legion — and terribly true. But this six-part miniseries from The Wire collaborators George Pelecanos and David Simon tracks their corruption back to the source, carefully exploring how decades of bad policy and mandatory oppression created a system dedicated to phony drug warriors like Jenkins. We Own This City can be ranty, and the Federal Consent Decree subplot trends toward infotainment. And yet, at a moment when TV feels tilted between big-budget flights of fantasy and empty feel-good calories, I keep coming back to City's raw humanity, and its unwillingness to look away from modern societal rot. Tough to pick just a few great performances in a stellar ensemble, but I'll never forget Jamie Hector's soulful turn as Detective Sean Suiter, a good man and a patient cop broken by a busted world.
<em>Better Call Saul</em> (AMC)
The first half of Better Call Saul's final season saw Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) execute a con job against uber-lawyer Howard (Patrick Fabian). On a show that loves little details, this life-heist was a new height for meticulous absurdity: fake cocaine in the country club locker room, a briefly stolen car, that last-minute fake judge. But with the end around the corner, it's striking how gracefully Saul takes time with its supporting cast, conjuring wowzer setpieces of sweetness or depravity that overflow with tension and stylish wit. I'll never forget on-the-run Nacho (Michael Mando) submerging himself in oil, or devilish Lalo (Tony Dalton) sharing a romantic evening with a grieving widow who doesn't realize her life's in terrible danger. And we knew from Breaking Bad that Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) was a very careful man, but only Saul would think to give him a secret tunnel to his extra house (useful when those Salamancas are about).
Is any TV series having more fun than Evil? Season 3 of the sensationally off-kilter procedural is loopier than ever. Smirking demons keep tormenting new priest David (Mike Colter) and stern Sister Andrea (Andrea Martin). Man-of-Science contractor Ben (Aasif Mandvi) suffers a reality crisis after finding an eyeball in a toilet. And Sheryl (Christine Lahti) is peddling cryptocurrency: The horror! Co-creators Michelle and Robert King can do hardcore serialization when you least expect it, building out threads about the Vatican Secret Service and Demon Houses into a mysterious snaking mythology of doom. But Evil can also freely explore priest-on-nun misogyny, the difficulties Kristen (Katja Herbers) has with her contractor, and the question of why Angels are always white. Here's a spiritual investigation for our doomscroll age, at once bleak and hysterical.
Co-creators Bill Hader and Alec Berg directed every episode of their hitman sitcom's third season. Their control of tone is unnervingly magnificent, with scenes that freely hopscotch from outlandish action extravaganza to intensive up-close psychodrama and goofy farce. The freeway showdown between Barry (Hader) and a vengeful heavy-artillery biker gang put the recent Fast & Furious movies to shame — and then a purgatorial beach suggested Ingmar Bergman on a miserable Malibu vacation. And credit Barry for extending its comedy of moral degradation in unexpected directions. Gene (Henry Winkler) simply seemed like someone who had to die, but season 3 sent him down an even darker path, as Barry's murderous machinations gave him a second chance at the career he always wanted. All that plus Laura San Giacomo? Barry doesn't miss.
The long-awaited return of one of the best TV shows ever kicked off with a run of radical episodes. Old character dynamics were reset beyond recognition — or ignored entirely. Once-upcoming rapper Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry) is now a globe-trotting sensation, managed by his cousin Earn (creator Donald Glover), previously homeless, now exuding tour clout. Darius (LaKeith Stanfield) is... well, the same, but in Amsterdam now. And something's seriously up with wandering Van (Zazie Beetz). A few breakway episodes played like uproarious nerve-jangled fables of monstrous whiteness, which felt thematically linked to the main characters' new-money explorations of billionaire ethics and corporate wokeness. I thought the season was building toward something outstanding...and then it trailed off, with a couple dangerously wacky episodes (an Amelie parody? A ker-razy Amsterdam drug trip?) that leaned heavy on cameos and seemed to lose sight entirely of the main characters. With the fourth and final season premiering later this year, we'll soon know if season 3's general glitzy chaos was part of the Eurotrip conceit or the new normal. I admire Atlanta's frantic boldness, though, which eventizes every episode into a what-the-hell-next odyssey of fascination. And now we know: Never trust a man named Socks.
<em>Abbott Elementary</em> (ABC)
TV comedy is hard, and broadcast TV comedy is nearly impossible, which makes Abbott Elementary — the funniest new show of 2022 — even more of a treasure. Created by and starring Quinta Brunson, the sweet sitcom about teachers in a struggling Philadelphia school is a marvel of creative economy: It blends a concise, relatable premise with stories that stem from character, and an ensemble that shines without showboating. (Emmy noms for Brunson, Sheryl Lee Ralph, and Janelle James, please!) Few TV characters arrive as fully realized as the staff at Abbott, and the writers continue to add layers through acute asides ("I used to do this thing with my mom where I would say to her exactly what I wanted to hear, hoping she'd just say it back") and revealing subplots. (Of course Gregory, the rigid substitute played to deadpan perfection by Tyler James Williams, eats boiled chicken sandwiches for lunch.) I've never been so ready to go back to school.
<em>Better Things</em> (FX)
"If one person remembers you, you stay alive forever." So says Duke (Olivia Edward) in the penultimate episode of Better Things, Pamela Adlon's achingly beautiful series about… life. The final season found Adlon's Sam Fox thinking more about what it all means. Her maddening yet lovably eccentric mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), has decided to move back to England. Soon enough, all three of her kids, Duke, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Max (Mikey Madison), will be out of the nest, too. Sam is a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, an artist, a nurturer — if a woman makes a home-cooked meal and no one is around to eat it, does she even exist? After five seasons and 52 episodes, Sam — sitting alone in her El Camino — realizes that the answer is Hell yes. Adlon ends the series with Sam driving off into the darkness to explore her freedom, secure in the knowledge that immortality is inevitable when you're loved.
<em>Pachinko</em> (Apple TV+)
Three countries, four generations, a cast of 13 regulars and at least as many recurring players — everything about Pachinko is big. But Soo Hugh's splendiferous adaptation of Min Jin Lee's acclaimed 2017 novel about the Korean diaspora in Japan draws much of its power from moments that are deceptively small. Wealthy merchant Koh Hansu (Lee Minho) draws a crude map on a rock for a young woman named Sunja (Minha Kim), hoping she'll realize that there's more to the world than her tiny fishing village. Ambitious banker Solomon (Jin Ha) tanks a multi-million-dollar business deal — and possibly his whole career — with three whispered words: "Don't do it." Pachinko parlor owner Mozasu (Soji Arai) watches his elderly mother (Yuh-Jung Youn) cry tears of joy as she stands in the surf on a Korean beach, overwhelmed at being back in her homeland for the first time in decades. With each of its varied narrative threads, Pachinko transforms a colossal subject into a story that is epically human.
<em>Better Call Saul</em> (AMC)
I mean, the audacity of this show. Better Call Saul had one job: Set up the Breaking Bad universe. And yes, it's executing that task brilliantly. But who gave co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould the right to construct a series that's so self-actualized, it is both everything a prequel should be and an urgently moving drama about an entirely new character, Kim Wexler, who doesn't even exist on Breaking Bad? As for Rhea Seehorn, her performance as the ponytailed pro-bono lawyer was so surprisingly stratified, it allowed the writers to take Kim down (bad choice) roads that perhaps even they couldn't have predicted. How dare she break our hearts in tiny, painful increments all season long? Kim should be changing the world through justice reform, not helping Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) scam poor Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) into a fate worse than doc review! And shame on Odenkirk, too. Somehow, the comedy legend mustered up the nerve to spend his second act as one of the best dramatic actors working today.
Barry is at its best when it lets Barry be broken. After putting Bill Hader's titular hitman through his bad-guy-tries-to-go-straight sitcom paces, season three plunged deep into the darkness of Barry's existence. Shunned by his grieving acting teacher, and hunted by his victims' vengeful families, Barry is forced to face the sum total of his life: Death, a dream-beach full of ghosts, and countless lives ruined by his hand. As Barry dragged everyone in his orbit to hell, the cast of Barry leveled up their performances in stunning new ways: Henry Winkler with Gene's stoic desolation; Sarah Goldberg with Sally's seething, self-preservational rage; Anthony Carrigan with NoHo Hank's poignant embrace of domestic bliss; Stephen Root with Fuches' blithe cruelty. And writer-director-star Hader, of course, whose hollowed-out alter ego unleashed a haunting, primal howl of despair in the season finale before facing some long-overdue retribution. Where can Barry (and Barry) go from here? Nowhere good — and I'm willing to bet it will be great.